Broken Toes

I’d been trying to see why our motion-activated yard light came on. Turning swiftly in the dark, I forget about the heavy hassock and slam my left foot into it. There’s a cracking noise. Pain washes over me like a wave with an undertow. Unlike a wave, it doesn’t recede, blooms larger forever as I make gasping noises. Phil’s brushing his teeth, from the bathroom shouts, “what, what?” a demand for information I haven’t the breath to answer.

It’d already been an annoying day. After waiting all week, this afternoon while I was at the dentist finding out I had a cavity, three review documents arrived in my email with a phone conference appointment for tomorrow. When I got home from the dentist, UPS still hadn’t come with our important package. Phil arranged to be home all day for it. We skipped our evening gym date, loitered downstairs till after 9, afraid we’d miss the knock if we went upstairs.

Waiting for UPS (or FedX or whoever) is like waiting for Godot, a limbo, a purgatory, a Tibetan bardo, a gray state between life and death, a miserable place in which no matter what else you do, you are primarily, obsessively waiting. You work at your computer with one ear tuned to the front door. You watch the evening news and look up every time a vehicle drives past. It’s a nowhere place, waiting for UPS.

Tracking information doesn’t deserve the name. Yes, live chat confirms at 5 p.m. (you can’t talk to anyone) it’s on the truck and will be delivered today. They lie. At ten p.m., tracking info changes to “scheduled for delivery tomorrow.” No explanation. No apology.

We cancel our breakfast date. Fine. I have those documents to read, issues to articulate before my phone conference. I’ll stay here to wait while Phil runs errands. Frustrated, we get ready for bed. And I notice the motion-activated yard light is on. It could be the raccoon. Once I looked out and saw a raccoon. The better to see outside, I leave the lights off.

Sudden pain incinerates all other concerns. For the moments of that eruption, all else is consumed in its flame. Whether the backyard light is on or not; what else I need to do before going to bed; cavities and phone conferences and student learning objectives; where our precious package is; regret over missing breakfast tomorrow; the lying, unreliable, life-ruining UPS system; all turn to ash.

I wait for the pain to ebb, to be able to walk again. But that doesn’t happen. Fortunately, I have a one-legged husband who has a knee scooter for the bathroom. He instructs me. With awkward jockeying, I finish getting ready for bed, grasping how difficult it has been for Phil to reach toilet and tub in this narrow room. We could go to emergency, Phil suggests. No way. I need my sleep. Ibuprofen. A pillow under my throbbing toes.

My fantasy that it would be fine by morning dies. I still can’t walk, but the pain settles to a dull ache. What do you call these toes? I ask Phil, as I write an email description of the injury for Christine, my neighbor the doctor. Oscar, Phil says. And this one’s Rosie. No, I retort, Rosie is pinky toe: even I know that. Undeterred, he continues, and this one is Charlie…

Oscar and Rosie-pinky-toe have swollen to bright sausages. A smoky blue bruise covers the top of my swollen foot. I should call Marilyn and tell her the other reason we had to cancel breakfast, the one I didn’t know yet when I talked to her last night.

Like any shock, even this minor one takes time to sink in. I cannot walk—wait: I can’t walk? UPS hasn’t come, so nor will I go to the doctor. I tape the injured toes to the healthy one next to them, take ibuprofen; ice it, keep it elevated. It’ll heal on its own in four to six weeks. What the what? Four weeks? Look at your calendar and see what else you have to cancel, Phil suggests.

I take the scooter to the top of the stairs, ease onto the floor, cling to the balusters, lower myself stair by stair on my butt like Phil did before he got his prosthesis. I hop to the kitchen, stand one-legged, hands on Phil’s walker, and realize I can’t make breakfast. After two days of hopping, my right thigh and hip ache. How did you do this? I ask Phil.

When I Googled broken toes, one site had preventive advice. First on the list: “don’t walk around your house barefoot in the dark.” It was a comfort. Apparently I’m not the only idiot who breaks toes this way.

Past six p.m. on day two of UPS confinement, our package finally arrives. Christine the doctor prescribes a popsicle stick splint so I can start walking. I suggest Haagen-Dazs. Christine observes that Haagen-Dazs sticks are a good width “for medicinal purposes.” Day three I abandon the walker, hobble around on a Haagen-Dazs stick, my brief sojourn in Phil’s shoe already fading. Although I’ll fail, I try to salvage appreciation of his reality. However tenuous, such understandings are essential to our humanity.

Posted in Humor | 7 Comments

Mexico City, Part 2

Roxanna Erdman drives in this crazy city and does it well. She lives nearby and when Agustín Cadena gets to town, she brings him to our hotel—Agustín wearing a bowler hat. We are writers so our gifts amount to book swaps. I give them mine and get Agustín’s latest, Dibujos a lápiz, which I’m translating as Pencil Sketches; Roxanna gives me her charming bestiary, Zorrillo el último. I wonder about translating bestiaries, which are usually alphabetical. Since he’s a skunk, the zorrillo cannot be last in English.

Roxanna and Agustín

Roxanna and Agustín

Sunday morning traffic is light. Roxanna gets us to San Angel in no time, where we see the memorial plaque for the San Patricios, the Irish who fought for Mexico in the Mexican-American War. Agustín shows us where they raised the gallows. Half a block away, Roxanna calls our attention to galletas de iglesia, being toasted outside the church on a griddle. Church biscuits: a heavenly aroma.

To reach Catherine Mayo’s house, Roxanna noses through a maze of narrow lanes designed for donkey carts. Catherine’s referrals have been golden: she put me in touch with everyone I’m translating now. Catherine is American, has lived in Mexico for decades and writes in English. It took Agustín just six months to translate her novel about Maximilian. I can’t imagine how he did that: Mílada Bazant’s biography took me nine.

Catherine and I have both translated Agustín’s stories. “We have enough for a book,” she says. “Let’s work on that.” Collaboration is common amongst translators, and Catherine is as collaborative as they come. She’s a fan of digital publishing, but still thinks print essential. Brandishing the 2007 chapbook with her translation of Agustin’s story Carne Verde, Piel Negra/An Avocado from Michoacán, she exclaims, “It looks brand-new! It won’t disappear. Things you publish online disappear.”

The mangos she serves us for dessert, drizzled with lime, are perfect. Tasting mine, I feel as if I’m floating. “Yes,” she acknowledges, “it is their moment.” Our lunch conversation is lively, we stay longer than planned and reach the Frida Kahlo Museum an hour before it closes, the line to get in still impossibly long. It was like that when I tried in 2002. “That is the same line,” I declare.

Agustín has breakfast with us the next morning, asks for hot water, brings his own Earl Grey tea bag. On Reforma we visit a Leonora Carrington sculpture he wants us to see. He points across the wide boulevard: “That heavily fortified building is the American embassy.” It stands behind a tall blue metal fence, thick hedges, concrete barriers. He grins. “They don’t even fly the flag.”

Cocodriillo, by Leonora Carrington

Cocodrillo, by Leonora Carrington

We walk the Zona Rosa, stop at El Péndulo, a café-bookstore. Phil said later, “I could have stayed for hours. They have an English section. And good coffee.” I bought Ignacio Padilla’s book on the 1985 earthquake there because Mónica Lavín mentioned it in regard to her in-progress novel about the earthquake.

The next evening, Mónica had put her ipod on shuffle and as we arrive vintage Bob Dylan is playing. It ain’t me, babe. Phil and I are immediately drawn to the books, and Mónica gives us a swift tour of her library: American authors here, Latin American there, Mexicans elsewhere, two shelves of her own books. “It’s a little egotistical,” she apologizes. “I’m moving them to my studio.” “Well, before you do, I need a photo,” I say.

Some of Mónica Lavín's books

Some of Mónica Lavín’s books

Jorge Prior arrives, and talk turns to documentaries. Jorge is working on a film about the late 19th century group of artists and writers who admired Manual Acuna, an early modernist poet. “I believe Manual Acuna is the person Laura Méndez de Cuenca had an affair with,” I exclaim. (I translated that biography: you’d think I could remember.) Mónica grabs her phone: yes, that’s right, and the out of wedlock baby is there too. I hope Jorge shows those artists digging up Acuna’s body years later. It’s a deliciously macabre event.

Catherine arrives with the evening rain and a blustery wind. Mónica closes the sliding glass balcony doors, serves a delicious huachinango as her ipod plays Johnny Cash. Later, the rain slackens and when she opens the doors again, fragrant cool air wafts over us.

Mónica Lavín, flanked by two of her translators, C.M. Mayo and yours truly

Mónica Lavín, flanked by two of her translators, C.M. Mayo and yours truly

Mónica and I discuss our proposed collection of stories, and mutter darkly about glacial editor response. I talk about the story I’m currently translating, in which Raymond Carver is mentioned. Where I’m Calling From is on her shelves. The mention is homage, but with its subtle, solitary epiphany, the story itself is a Carver story, I say. She had not thought of that. Creativity is sometimes mysterious, giving the author an intuition that her character would have read Carver. The writer writes, and is not always aware of all she does.

The days spin by and we find ourselves back in America and not braced for it. It is too loud, the RNC has ended and the DNC is in mid-stride. In the Houston airport, half-listening to Bloomberg speak, wearily waiting to start the last leg of our journey, I get a text from Agustín: “I am full of happy memories. You and Phil are encantadores.”


Posted in Translation, Travel | 4 Comments

México City, Part I

After a long journey begun at 3 a.m., one old people like us shouldn’t undertake, we slept nine hours in our Mexico City hotel. Dark. Quiet. Cool enough to want a blanket. No barking dogs like those that plague us at home. Nothing scheduled the next day. Bliss. It’s air-conditioned, isn’t it? Phil asked. No, it’s not. Air-conditioning and heat are mostly unnecessary in this temperate climate.

The monstrous city sits at 7,382 feet in a valley surrounded by mountains. If it weren’t for the 22 million people and traffic polluting its air, this climate would be heaven. July is rainy season, nighttime temps in the 50s, days in the 70s. “Ya comenzaron las lluvias,” a cabbie told me on my July arrival years ago. The rains have already begun. Daily showers let Mexico City recall being the place where the air is clear, La región más transparente of Carlos Fuentes’ first novel, and sometimes, it almost still is.

Butterfly caught in the view from the Castle

Butterfly caught in the view from the Castle

At noon white clouds scud across the blue and the air is a silky 72 when we reach the Castle at Chapultepec Park, where we see Cabrera’s posthumous portrait of Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, the portrait I’ve seen on book jackets for decades. The real painting is enormous, fills the wall it hangs on, glossy with protective varnish as 18th century paintings often are. She was beautiful. She was crazy smart. For that she had to apologize: Yo la peor de todas. I, the worst of women.

Students from Universidad technológico interview us to practice their English: “how old are you?” The question is basic to first year language classes, along with “where are you from?” and “what are your hobbies?” I try to explain that it’s a fine student query, but could be rude to ask older adults. They giggle and aren’t sure what I mean. I say I’m older than my husband. “She robbed the cradle,” Phil offers. They stare blankly. I try “robar la cuna” with no results. The same expression may not exist in Spanish and I have no idea what its equivalent might be, although surely there is one.

We have excellent tortilla soup and a limonada of fresh kiwi and mint at the Rufino Tamayo museum restaurant. I enjoy the music they’re playing. “Remember,” Phil recalls, “when you went to Trotsky’s house in Coyoacán and the café was playing Buddha Bar II, which was how we discovered that CD?” I ask the Tamayo waitress about the music. She writes the CD title on a slip of paper for me: Buddha Bar XVIII. Apparently it’s been a long time since that Trotsky visit.

Restaurant at Rufino Tamayo Museum

Restaurant at Rufino Tamayo Museum

It seems everyone has been to the U.S. One of our cabbies spent a year in Virginia, where he learned a lot of English and another year in San Antonio, where he didn’t need English at all. One of our waiters lived in Chicago for five years and Phil observes that his English has a Chicago accent.

We had dinner with Cristy, translator and editor at Mexico City Lit and a fine example of today’s international youth: raised half here, half in the U.S., university educated in New York, her Mexican Spanish and American English both fluent. After her modern dance class, she meets us at a charming café and antique shop called Yume, front open to the street, four old men playing dominos, young patrons on laptops and phones. Free wifi. Coffee and hot Oaxaca chocolate served in large bowls. Cristy invites us to her poetry reading. The other poets will read in Spanish. She will read in both, because, por supuesto, her poems are bilingual. Outside, the evening rain falls softly.

We meet historian Mílada Bazant at Los Canarios on Insurgentes. They actually have canaries singing in large cages on the shady patio. A year ago, I translated Mílada’s biography of Laura Méndez de Cuenca. On arrival, she asks, “are we speaking Spanish?” and when I say Phil doesn’t, she smiles, “then we’ll speak in English.”

On Insurgentes, near Los Canarios Restaurant

On Insurgentes, near Los Canarios Restaurant

Mílada lived in London for two years and in New York for one. I told Phil that when we were working on the biography Mílada kept saying, “you’re the writer: word it as you think best.” “That’s right,” she affirms cheerfully. “Now some English journal is asking for an article on Laura,” she sighs, “and I’m working on another book and so over her.” “If you need a translator for the article…” I offer.

I complain that Americans know little about Mexico while Mexicans know a great deal about America. “We have to,” she replies. “You’re the giant next door: everything you do impacts us.”

We have a fine main meal rich with conversation. Mílada asks us, perplexed, “why would anyone vote for Trump?” We pass a couple absorbed hours, leave Mílada at the bus platform. “I don’t drive in this crazy city,” she says. As we’re hugging goodbye, she adds, “I hope you can write that article on Laura,” and laughs.

Posted in Translation, Travel | 3 Comments

Coffee Klatch: A History

Our coffee klatch is chiefly composed of old people these days. Not you, Kyle. But the rest of us regulars. One day DiAnne announced: “I’m married to a 70-year-old man.” I commiserated. So am I. We’ve met weekly at Coffee at the Point for ten years. Maybe six, maybe sixteen. Ten years is my fallback guess for how long ago anything was. When did we take that trip? Ten years ago. When did we buy this mattress? Ten years ago. Time for a new one.

Judy gets credit for our being here. We met her and Kyle, Lara, Alan and his young son Nick at a coffee shop in Whittier, where we all lived and some of us still do. Alan and Nick played chess with a Simpsons set. Lara came with baby Dedee in a stroller. When that shop closed we said our goodbyes. Judy refused: “Oh no, you don’t. We’ll find another place.”

“We” meant Judy, who found Coffee at the Point, then operating with another name and owner, and rounded us up. C at P is in Five Points, which borders Whittier. Alan started working Saturdays and Nick started playing sports, so we soon didn’t see them anymore. Lara moved to the burbs, doesn’t get to town much and Dedee just graduated from high school. Congrats, Dedee!

We added John and DiAnne, who I at first frowned on because they live on the wrong side of Downing. (This is a Whittier group, people!) “How long have you been coming to this coffee group?” I asked DiAnne. “About ten years,” she replied. I glared at her. Now we have drop-ins from as far afield as Cheesman Park. We also include Jerry, who lives upstairs from the shop, takes the elevator and walks 30 feet to join us, the closest thing we’ve got to a New York experience.

Judy began to manage the art for C at P a few years back. One morning we discovered the owner, Ryan, had set up a table with a black tablecloth and printed sign: “Reserved for Judy Weaver & Friends.” Every Saturday morning since, our reserved table awaits us. It’s gone a bit to Judy’s head. She issues warnings about who may or may not be her friends this week.

Alan showed up last Saturday with a towering young man, a fellow who graduates from college next year, is 21 and claims to be the little Nick kid we used to watch play chess. “How long since we’ve seen you?” “About ten years,” Alan promptly replied.

Judy’s an extrovert. I like her anyway, but she’s constantly bringing flyers for some event, ideas for meeting at the farmer’s market, or the news that next week is Juneteenth. To her extrovert mind, a street festival’s booths and bands and people packed in like sardines means coming earlier and staying later. Phil immediately says, “we won’t be here next Saturday, then.”

No longer surprised by our introvert attitude—she’s heard this response from us before—Judy remains undeterred. Clearly, we need to get out more. It’s her mission to see that we do. That goes for Jerry too. Kyle, DiAnne and John do fine on their own.

Chloe is a lovely Cleo Parker Robinson dancer who worked at the coffee shop through her pregnancy. We’d met the baby, but recently she walked in with a toddler. Transformations of children you rarely see are miraculous: that baby became a stunning little boy in two blinks. “He’s going to be a heartbreaker,” I gushed. Just then Ryan’s brother Donovan walked past, wagging an admonishing finger: “He’s spoken for.” Chloe smiled. “Donovan wants him for his daughter. It’ll be an arranged marriage.”

This coffee klatch has evolved from a casual gathering to a commitment. Now when you’re not going to attend you have to let the others know. That could be my fault. One morning I accused John and DiAnne of having been absent. “That’s right,” they replied, readily admitting their guilt. “You’ll have to bring an excuse next time,” I snapped. Once a teacher, always a teacher.

We spend a lot of time in what Phil calls echo conversations: liberal Democrats all, we rant against Trump. Did you hear what he said about Brexit? Pathetic. John Oliver said if he’d just breathed into the microphone it would have been more information. We’re a pandemonium of parrots on such topics.

Our neighborhood conversations have evolved. In the early 2000s they were like, you know, that Victorian square on the corner with the metal porch columns? Oh, that one. I hate those columns. Did the cops come? Now our conversations are mainly, did you see the particleboard mini-mansion they’re building on that lot? Modernistas in the midst of Queen Annes. Disgusting.

Phil and I may be introverts, but we’re still human and hence social. I read somewhere that even seeing people once a week improves spirits. Saturday morning coffee has for decades helped do that for us. Or maybe for ten years.

Posted in Humor, Neighborhood | 5 Comments